VICTORIA -- Life for many British Columbia has been turned upside down for the past 10 months, and will remain that way for at least another one after Thursday’s announcement that restrictions on events and social gatherings will be extended until Feb. 5.

The ongoing new reality of life under those restrictions is taking an inevitable toll on mental health, says mental health expert Hazel Meredith.

Meredith is the executive director of Mental Health Recovery Partners South Island. She says her organization has been busier than ever during the pandemic.

“Everyone is feeling the struggle of having normal life pulled out from under them, and trying to gain footing and feel like they can actually thrive again,” says Meredith.

That stress is leading more people to abuse alcohol and drugs says Justin Bennett, an outreach worker at The Umbrella Society.

“We’re definitely seeing an an increase in substance use in the community,” says Bennett, noting the organization had hired as many as 16 new staff members during the pandemic. “We are also seeing an increase in people looking for support.”

Meredith says exercising regularly, plus eating and sleeping well are important for maintaining good mental health.

She also says staying connected — remotely — is key.

“Through the telephone, zoom, other social media, to be able to talk about what’s happening,” Meredith says. “These feelings are overwhelming for folks, but we really need to reach out and stay connected with one another.”

Still, she acknowledges there’s no doubt that even with these tips many are feeling fatigued by the pandemic and the restrictions, so having something to look for to is vital.

“To know that there is some hope, that we’ve got vaccines that are coming out,” she says.